The Civil War Adventures of a Blockade Runner
Military History - Civil War
6 x 9, 348 pp.
6 line drawings.
Pub Date: 09/10/2001
  paper
Price:        $17.95

978-1-58544-152-5
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Published by Texas A&M University Press

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The Civil War Adventures of a Blockade Runner

By William Watson

William Watson published his account of the two years he spent evading Union gunboats and dealing with the “sharpers” who fed off the misfortune of war in 1892. Using log books, personal papers, and business memoranda, he sought to write a “plain, blunt” account of “events just as they happened.” Instead, he wrote a classic adventure tale whose careful description of seafaring in the 1860s gives us a glimpse into a world now closed to us.

Watson is the protagonist, but he shares his story with his ship, the Rob Roy, a center-board schooner whose shallow draft and wide beam made it the ideal vessel for slipping over shoals and dashing in and out of blockaded ports. He peoples his account with the good, the bad, and the unlucky, from the likeable and irrepressible Captain Dave McLusky to the loathsome and dishonest Mr. R. M. He takes his reader from Havana, where land sharks greeted incoming sailors, to Galveston, where sharp businessmen and corrupt officials connived to confiscate both profits and ships. He stops at Matamora, a dusty place on “a bare and barren coast,” and he visits General Magruder in Houston. His crew brave gales and a hurricane that drives the Rob Roy back thirty miles; and he survives plots against his ship and his life.

Through it all, Watson enjoys himself. Blockade running, he declares, was not “unlawful or dishonourable.” Rather, it was “a bold and daring enterprise,” an “exciting sport of the higher order,” like racing yachts, and an almost obligatory act of defiance of a blockade “maintained by no other right than by the force of arms.” The “commission merchants” did better than the blockade runners. But Watson recalled his years dodging federal gunboats and outwitting petty officials, treacherous crew, and dishonest businessmen as “much more congenial than the extortions and deceitful wheedling and trickeries of the legitimate trade.”

This is an adventure story held together by the nuts and bolts of sailing. Watson’s discussion of why sail was superior to steam for running blockades is superb; his detailed accounts of surviving gales and outrunning Federal cruisers are fascinating. He takes yellow fever and high sea chases in stride. Through it all, he maintains his honor and guards his profits. For the reader who wants to ply the Gulf of Mexico under sail, play the lottery in Havana, and visit Texas when it was “a new country,” Watson is the perfect guide to run the blockade that time imposes on posterity.

A British subject, William Watson lived and worked in the South prior to the outbreak of war in 1861. Although he opposed secession, he served with the Confederate army. Wounded at the battle of Corinth and subsequently declared unfit for further service, he found his way to New Orleans and blockade running. He recounted his service with the Confederacy in Life in the Confederate Army.

What Readers Are Saying:

“A real boon to anyone who cares about Brazoria County’s history.” --The Facts

“Sometimes humorous, he is always interesting. . . . an informative and entertaining adventure tale.” --The Rebel Rouser

“Written in a spellbinding manner that is reminiscent of Horatio Hornblower novels.” --Civil War Book Review

The majority of his accounts are clear, concise, and exciting reading. In particular, his amazing recall (or recognition) of dialogue between rogues, partners, crew, and Confederate soldiers contributes greatly to his story. His memoirs, first published in 1892, are filled with exciting sea chases, colorful characters, greedy speculators, noble seamen, and behind-the-scenes descriptions of the art of blockade running across the Gulf of Mexico. The lessons he learned about human nature by dealing with speculators, spies, and sailors are as applicable today as 140 years ago.” --Nautical Research Journal

“William Watson’s The Civil War Adventures of a Blockade Runner is essential for those who have an interest in this topic. Its detailed recounting of chases, near captures, and the business of blockade running provide a great deal of insight into the trade. In addition to relating his exciting and sometimes frightening adventures at sea, Watson furnishes an excellent description of other situations confronted by blockade runners. William Watson had a number of dilemmas and daring adventures as a blockade runner. He has compiled a thorough description of his experiences, and anyone interested in blockade running should read this book.” --East Texas Historical Association

“Not surprisingly, most of the best books on the Civil War were written by the participants. This tale of blockade running is no exception. Never mind that you don’t know a ‘topmast staysail’ from a ‘gaff-topsail,’ have never ‘stood close hauled on the port tack to the southward,’ or ‘scudded before the wind under a close reefed foresail.’ Watson has been there and done that, and he makes you smell the salt spray and hold your breath lest you tip off the blockaders to his presence as he slides by them in the dark of night. When his profits are siphoned off by shrewd middlemen and scheming factors, you feel his fury and frustration. The boredom of blockade running is explored in detail, as boredom was a much greater part of the game than one would imagine. Watson’s book is full of scoundrels and heroes, with the former far outnumbering the latter. It is a compilation of things as they were, rather than as they should have been or as we wish they were. And as such, it gives us a much truer glimpse of the time than the typical recently published War Between the States tome. For anyone with an interest in blockade running or the naval aspects of the Civil War, this book is a must-read. . . . a fascinating look into a fascinating, but seldom examined, topic.” --Journal of America’s Military Past

“This is a fascinating account of the wild world of blockade running. There is the good and the bad sprinkled all through this thoroughly entertaining account of a dangerous and somewhat elss than noble business. Captain Watson takes his reader from Havana to Galveston through hurricanes, Union ships, and plots against himself and his ship. He does so with a writing style that I found easy to follow and could stay. . . . a most entertaining book.” --Confederate Veteran

“A compilation of things as they were, rather than as they should have been or as we wish they were. And as such, it gives us a much truer glimpse of the time than the typical recently published War Between the States tome. Watson presents the good, the bad, and the ugly of running the blockade in the Gulf of Mexico; this book was well worth reprinting.” --Journal of America’s Military Past

“I happened across the title, ‘The Civil War Adventures of a Blockade Runner,’ while doing some research on the Civil War in Texas. At the time, I was skeptical about what I might find in the book. As it turns out, Watson’s book is not only a fast read, its entertaining and suspenseful, too!” --Stephen Fox OR Barto Arnold

“The book is of interest for the excellent writing style and coverage of the topic. Watson provides many technical details of how the captain of a blockade-runner carried out his job, including both daring the Union Navy and dealing with sharp businessmen ashore. We have no first had accounts as for the Denbigh, but Watson’s trips in and our of Galveston from Havana and other ports were very, very similar. Watson brings the past to life.” --Amazon.com

"This is a great book with a lot of action that will make an excellent addition to your Confederate Navy bookshelf."--The Lone Star Book Review

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